Close Encounters of the Cthulhu Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: written by Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Richard Dreyfus (Roy Neary), Francois Truffaut (Lacombe), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (Laughlin), and Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary( (1977): It’s amazing how much Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays like a horror movie for much of its length — indeed, like an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” The film moves from location to location to show various strange events and mysteries that occur across the planet. There’s a documentary feel to the location work and the narrative structure, as mysterious U.N. investigators led by Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban travel the Earth to investigate UFO-related incidents. 

In the purposefully mundane domestic sequences that focus on dissatisfied husband and father Richard Dreyfus and single mother Melinda Dillon, we see Spielberg and uncredited screenwriter Paul Schrader ground the movie in the day-to-day life of working-class Americans. And then the UFO’s show up and gradually change everything. And as with many of the characters in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Dillon and Dreyfus are tormented by nightmares and visions as the alien arrival on Earth approaches.

I don’t know that either Schrader or Spielberg ever read “The Call of Cthulhu.” It has such a sturdy narrative approach to the creation of globe-spanning cosmic horror that it’s more of a surprise that more film-makers haven’t stumbled upon the approach before. The main difference here being that the story is ultimately about the arrival on Earth of friendly aliens and not all-conquering alien monsters. But the aliens do enough odd things along the way that a certain measure of fear recurs throughout the movie, most notably when aliens kidnap Dillon’s young son for reasons that are as murky as anything else when it comes to possible alien motivation.

The arrival of the UFO’s at the conclusion of the film stands as a high point of practical, non-CGI visual effects. It’s a showcase of model work, cloud tanks, mattes, and an assortment of other ‘tricks’ honed to near-perfection during the non-CGI years. It’s also a beautiful-looking climax, with its glowing alien spacecraft set off against the night sky and the looming stump of the mountainous Devil’s Tower.

The Lovecraftian melding of documentary-style attention to detail and the unfolding of revelations to increasingly weirded-out protagonists serve Spielberg’s vision well. The acting is solid throughout and, in the case of Truffaut’s visionary, quite charming. What the aliens are doing doesn’t necessarily make much sense, and there are some groaners in the dialogue towards the end (an exchange about Einstein is especially dumb). But overall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still a splendid movie, and one that probably would never be made in today’s marketplace. Highly recommended.

The Call of Cthulhu: adapted by Sean Branney from the story by H.P. Lovecraft; directed by Andrew Leman; starring Matt Foyer (Narrator), Ralph Lucas (Professor Angell), Patrick O’Day (Johansen), and David Mersault (Inspector Legrasse) (2005): The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS)’s first long-form foray into film-making is now 10 years old and still dandy. An amateur film made for a pittance, it outshines most professional horror movies with far larger budgets both in its faithfulness to its source material and in its aesthetic pleasures.

Lovecraft’s seminal Cthulhu Mythos novella saw publication in 1926. HPLHS adapted the novella under the conceit that it had been adapted for film in its publication year. Thus, The Call of Cthulhu is a silent movie that looks and acts like a silent movie, right down to the occasional defects in the viewing experience (dig that hair on the lens in the early going!). 

We do get an excellent musical score, so one can either assume that one is in a 1926 film theatre with live music or that The Call of Cthulhu has had a score added for its ‘modern’ release. Whatever suspends your disbelief. But The Call of Cthulhu isn’t simply an homage to the film-making tropes of the late Silent Era: it’s a compelling horror movie in its own right. 

Clever visual riffs on Van Gogh and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seem appropriate to the subject matter; the stop-motion Cthulhu we see towards the end of the film is a terrific use of period-appropriate visual effects that actually manages to be disquieting as it lurches across the screen. Model and prop work are also beautiful throughout the movie, with a couple of different yet equally disquieting Cthulhu idols and a terrific approximation of Cthulhu’s home/prison R’lyeh, risen from the waves for a brief moment.

It’s a worthwhile expenditure of an hour to watch The Call of Cthulhu. Would that big-budget horror and fantasy movies showed this level of skill and artistry. Highly recommended.

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